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2020 Draft Preview No. 8: The College Ceiling Report

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The risks and the rewards are both sky-high in this edition of the draft preview series.

St. Louis Cardinals v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

I watched The Last Dance. It was...fine. You know what you should watch instead? The History of the Seattle Mariners. Trust me, it’s much better.

Anyway, let’s look at some more June draftees. Today’s uniting theme is that of college players with extremely high ceilings, regardless of their potential risks. Basically it’s three players I find interesting and decided to cram together in one post rather than waiting for them to come up separately in other demographics, although I would still say that if you’re looking for true high-risk, high-reward college guys this June, these are them.

Also, everyone who didn’t vote for Keith Hernandez sucks. You know who you are. And you suck.

Garrett Mitchell, OF, UCLA

6’3”, 204 lbs

Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 4th September 1998

So, what’s so great about this guy?

If you’re looking for the best pure athlete in the 2020 draft, it just might be Mitchell. There are a few players who may be a bit faster. There are a few who are bigger and stronger. There are some with better throwing arms, and some who show more natural ability to make contact. What there isn’t, though, is another player who brings all of those things together in one package.

To start, Mitchell is an easy plus runner, probably closer to a 65 or even 70. He’s quick out of the box, being a left-handed hitter, but it’s in the outfield where the speed really shows up. He’s an above-average center fielder and could be a monster if moved to a corner. He’s been clocked up to 94 mph in the outfield, meaning he’s obviously a fit for right field and would contribute heavily in controlling the running game of the opposition. This is an impact defender, and if you were to stick him in right field next to, say, a Harrison Bader type, you could basically eliminate two-thirds of the outfield as useful for opposing hitters.

So we have a clear impact player on the defensive side of things; what about the hitting side? Well, that’s where things start to get more complicated. Now, ordinarily, you would look a player like Mitchell and determine that the issue is an excess of swing and miss, right? Big dude, powerful build, crazy athletic, sounds like we’re heading down the Randal Grichuk road here. Ah, but that’s where Mitchell confounds us, because he really has no contact issues whatsoever. He struck out more than you want to see his freshman season, but he was also a true freshman playing nearly every day in one of the toughest conferences in college baseball. Taking your lumps from top college competition as an eighteen or nineteen year old is going to happen.

No, the issue with Mitchell isn’t that he’s a hacker, up there chasing breaking balls and offspeed pitches into the outside batter’s box. The issue is that, despite being 6’3” and 200+ pounds of twitchy muscle, Garrett Mitchell doesn’t hit for power. Like, nearly any power. The reason? His swing. It just isn’t made for power. There’s very little natural loft in his swing, and his approach at the plate is to make contact and put the ball in play, rather than waiting and hunting pitches to drive. He’ll show the ability to drive the ball in batting practice, but in game action he’s always out there hitting like an old-school leadoff guy. Which isn’t the end of the world, necessarily, but it limits his ceiling as a hitter. He hit only six home runs as a sophomore, when he really broke out as a hitter, despite posting a .984 OPS against top-level competition. In limited action this spring, he walked twice as often as he struck out, posted a .425 on-base percentage with just over a 4% strikeout rate, stole five of six bases, and...hit zero homers. He hits entirely too many ground balls, and even early in counts never seems to really hunt for a pitch to drive.

All of this, the crazy athleticism, the defensive impact, the awesome secondary skills, all of it undone or at least limited by a swing that really doesn’t seem to work the way you would expect it to, puts me in mind of a big leaguer, a former Cardinal, who has had a hugely impactful career (at times), despite always searching for that key that would unlock his true ceiling. Can you guess who I’m thinking of? Hopefully you haven’t looked down from this line yet, so you can try to guess.

Jason Heyward is the player who seems like the best comp to me for Mitchell. Not the true five-tool wonder Heyward was as a prospect, but the always almost-there player he turned out to be in the majors. And if that sounds intriguing but frustrating, well, that’s pretty much the J-Hey Experience. Remember, though, that before Heyward went to Chicago and completely forgot how to hit, he had established himself as a consistent 120ish wRC+ hitter with all-world defense and plus baserunning in Atlanta and St. Louis. I’m not saying Mitchell turns into all that, but he has that kind of little-bit-of-everything game, with the bat being a limiting factor, unfortunately. Now, if a club could figure out how to retool his swing even a little bit to get the ball in the air, he could be J.D. Drew. But it’s a dicey proposition to bet on a college hitter who just might have a hard cap on how good his bat can be. Then again, even with that he could be an impact player, just one of those where you have to look a little deeper to find the impact.

via The Prospect Pipeline:

Patrick Bailey, C, North Carolina State

6’2”, 192 lbs

Bats/Throws: Switch/Right

DOB: 29th May, 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

There’s an interesting subplot in this year’s draft, having to do with the depth of catching talent in the first couple rounds. Actually, not just catching depth, but catching depth of either the left-handed hitting or switch-hitting variety, both of which are fairly unusual demographics to see a lot of. Amongst that group, Patrick Bailey stands out as the guy most likely to not only make it to the big leagues, but potentially stick as an impact player there.

Bailey has solid contact ability, but it’s really the plate approach and power potential that make him stand out so much as a hitter. He’s been right around a 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio throughout his college career, walking over 15% of the time in both his sophomore and truncated junior seasons, and hit 24 home runs total in just over 350 college plate appearances. It’s worth noting he didn’t hit well with wood for Team USA last summer, but how much weight to place on such a small sample for a player playing such a demanding position is really anybody’s guess.

Behind the plate, Bailey has plus athleticism in his movements and a strong enough arm to control the running game pretty well, though the reports are that his receiving and game-calling are still fairly raw. I haven’t seen nearly enough of him to have a strong opinion either way on his defense beyond seeing him block balls and pop up to throw, so I will defer to others who may have a better handle on that aspect of his game. The point is, though, Bailey has the tools to be at least an average defensive catcher, and one with an offensive ceiling that is extremely rare for the position.

Which brings us to the real downside. You simply don’t see players with Bailey’s specific toolset playing catcher very often. Switch-hitters tend to develop a little more slowly, and catchers tend to take a little longer to develop to begin with. Having to maintain two swings in addition to all the extra responsibilities of a catcher is a daunting task. Bailey’s offensive ceiling could make him a tempting candidate to move out from behind the plate, simply in order to get him through a system faster and to hopefully get him more plate appearances at the major league level. Maybe with the DH in place a team could get him 500 plate appearances split between catching and just hitting on days in between, but you don’t generally see guys behind the plate taking Yadier Molina levels of at-bats.

The too long didn’t read version is this: Patrick Bailey, if everything comes together, could have an incredible ceiling as a power-and-walks switch-hitter with average or better defense behind the plate. Trying to figure out how to make that all work and both maximise his development chances and get him playing time, though, is more complicated than in most other cases, simply because catchers don’t follow so many of the other rules. There’s a reason it’s really hard to think of successful players with exactly Patrick Bailey’s skillset.

via Gutter Towers:

Casey Martin, SS, Arkansas

5’11”, 175 lbs

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 7th April 1999

So, what’s so great about this guy?

I must be in a comping mood today, because I’m going to give you the player Casey Martin makes me think of right up top, then see if I can justify it. Casey Martin is physically smaller, but his overall game is extremely reminiscent to me of another college shortstop the Cardinals drafted fifteen years ago: Tyler Greene.

We’ll begin with the good stuff: Casey Martin is one of the most explosive athletes in this year’s draft. He’s a 70 grade runner, shows ridiculous range in both the infield and outfield, and has enough arm he could play either position on the left side of the dirt. He can steal bases pretty much at will, swiping 24 of 27 in his college career, and the jumps he’s capable of are explosive. Despite his modest stature, he also has above-average raw power, hitting with a leg kick and an aggressive clearing of the hips in his swing. He could be at least a 20/20 guy if everything comes together, and the athleticism in the field could make him either a solid starter at shortstop or potentially a six-position utility player.

Now the bad stuff: Casey Martin strikes out. A lot.

Yes, that’s only one mark against him. Problem is, it’s a really serious mark. Martin has never struck out less than 22% of the time in college, and he’s actually made less contact rather than more as he’s played longer. This spring (admittedly, very small sample size), he struck out 31% of the time as a junior. That’s with metal bats in non-conference play. The issue isn’t how often Martin has struck out in college, necessarily, but what the translation of those numbers up the ladder looks like. A guy who strikes out a quarter of the time against college competition with metal bats is not a great candidate to hit against pro-level pitching with wood, to say the least. Now, to be fair, strikeout rates have been on the rise in college as well, due to both pitchers throwing harder and hitters embracing a pro-style approach that focuses on damage over contact, but still, those numbers are scary.

A team that believes their development staff could help Martin cut his strikeout rate to even 20% or so as a pro could pop him in the first round, with the idea of turning him into just as exciting a multi-position player as the other Martin (Austin), who will go at or near the very top of the draft. The risk, though, is that Martin (Casey, that is), will never really get his contact to where it needs to be for him to be a tough out, and he’ll end up being just as easy to pitch to as, wait for it, Tyler Greene.

via joeemarlin: